When El Paso post-punks At the Drive-In released their third record "Relationship of Command" in 2000, it sounded like the shape of punk to come. 17 years later, it still does.
Vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s oblique poetry and Omar Rodríguez-López’s twisted guitar playing took the Warped Tour scene by storm. Grafting the most innovative elements of progressive rock to the slash-and-burn ideology of post-hardcore, the band set the stage for some of the last decade's most-exciting punk bands, among them Thursday, Glassjaw and Thrice.
Released last Friday, "Inter Alia" picks up almost exactly where “Relationship of Command” left off. From the snarling album-opener “No Wolf Like the Present” to the blistering and paranoid “Hostage Stamps,” “Inter Alia” refuses to let go after sinking its teeth in.
That works both for and against it. On the one hand, At the Drive-In has always had a reputation for gnashing melodies and full-speed-ahead tempos. But some of the band’s finest moments came when it played with dynamics or even slowed down. “Inter Alia” features few such respites, and completely abandons the experimental instrumentation of past efforts. As such, it can be exhausting for listeners dead-set on sitting through all 42 minutes.
While the record doesn’t quite hang together as a single statement, on a song-by-song basis it consistently delivers. “Pendulum in a Peasant Dress,” with its galloping rhythm and freak-out guitar riffs, stands out as an early highlight. The progressive rock of “Tilting at the Univendor” finds the band rekindling its melodic tendencies. Lead single “Governed by Contagions” sounds better in the context of the record, but still comes across as a song by a band misremembering its own past.
While rock might be falling by the wayside, At the Drive-In remains a vital force. Bixler-Zavala’s paranoid and dystopic lyrics feel more relevant now than ever before, especially when drawing attention to border politics as he does on “Pendulum in a Peasant Dress” or rape culture in “Incurably Innocent.”
Written partially with its fans in mind, “Inter Alia” doesn’t surprise like past At the Drive-In efforts, but it doesn’t need to.
Those looking for a departure from At the Drive-In’s signature sound need look no further than ex-ATDI guitarist Jim Ward’s post-hardcore outfit Sparta or Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López's salsa-prog collective The Mars Volta. For those just happy that At the Drive-In is once more operational in 2017, “Inter Alia” is an excellent return to form. Here’s hoping they can stay together and bring us something completely new the next time around.